Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why PISA leans away from the Arabs

Why is there such a large gap in the digital reading scores between Arabic and Hebrew speakers?


Salman Masalha ||
 
Why PISA leans away from the Arabs

If I were into conspiracy theories I would hasten to blame Bill Gates, Microsoft and the Windows operating system for the failure of Arab students. Once again, with the publication of the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams for 2013, we have been informed of the bleak situation of the education system in Israel and in particular in the Arab sector. The PISA exams evaluate the literacy of 15-year-olds in schools in mathematics, the sciences and reading. Recently a new test assessing students’ ability to read, understand and use digital texts has been added.

The Israeli Ministry of Education hastened to boast of its supposed achievements but it is hoodwinking the public. The improvement they have crowed about is marginal. Moreover, the recent results show a widening of the gap between Hebrew-speakers and Arabic speakers. According to the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education in Israel there is a gap of about 100 points between Hebrew-speakers and Arabic-speakers in all the areas assessed. The situation is even worse when it comes to digital reading; there the gap is 155 points.

The Authority for Measurement and Evaluation tried to sweeten the bitter pill with a bad-smelling trick. They appeared to report the results in a correct fashion but added another paragraph: “If the language groups were evaluated according to the rankings of the various countries, then the achievements of the Hebrew-speakers would resemble those of students in the countries ranked at about 15 (out of 64), whereas the achievements of the Arabic speakers would be ranked at around 56th place (out of 64).” In other words, “our” (Hebrew-speaking Israeli) public can relax. After all, compared to the other countries the Jews have placed well while it’s the Arabs who are dragging us down to below the middle of the chart.

Why is there such a large gap in the digital reading scores? A difference of this dimension requires a convincing explanation.

It must be said, that in addition to the usual explanations attributing the gap in achievements to the students’ socio-economic background – which are true in part – there are also other explanations to which no one has paid attention. Indeed, the PISA exam achievements of the Arab students in the wealthy Gulf states were not impressive either and they are at the bottom of the chart, like the Arab students in Israel.

Thus, there are other reasons for these disheartening results. Having examined the materials, I can say that there is a serious problem in the translation of the texts into the Arabic language. Not only are there many mistakes in the translations, it also emerges that the Arabic is convoluted, circuitous and not fluent. There is also a very flawed use of punctuation marks, which are supposed to organize the text and aid in the understanding of what is written.

In addition to all that, there is another huge problem having to do with the use of Bill Gates’ Windows operating system on personal computers. This is not of negligible importance: It is connected inter alia to digital reading and explains the size of the gap – 150 points – between Hebrew-speakers and Arabic speakers.

To understand the gravity of this problem, imagine a situation in which the whole Internet in Hebrew appears in Rashi writing, or the English Internet in Old English runes. In such a case, digital reading would become a nearly impossible task.

True, there is no Rashi alphabet in Arabic but the Microsoft Windows operating system uses particularly terrible Arabic fonts, which tire the eyes and are nearly unreadable. And, as in Hebrew, when there is a need to add vowel pointing to aid in the fluency of reading Arabic, the vowel point falls on top of the letter, deforms it and adds another level of difficulty to deciphering what is written. Windows is a closed system and it is not possible to add a proper, handsome and easily legible font to it.

This problem can be solved by means of an ultimatum to Microsoft to change the unreadable Arabic fonts in the Windows operating system. If not, then all the Arabs will move to using Apple computers. I made this transition long ago.
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